Remarks By Rabbi Dan Zemel, at her funeral

Remarks By Rabbi Dan Zemel, Temple Micah, Kirby’s home synagogue in which she grew up, at her funeral

2 February 2012, Congressional Cemetery, Washington, DC:


Robert, Judith and Owen—words fail us all—

We all love you very much—

We struggle to find words to say, words that express in some way the inexpressible.

We only can say—we love you all so much.…

Yesterday, I sat in silence looking at my computer screen thinking about what words I could offer that could try and capture our sense of this moment. There are of course no words.

The ache is too great.

The insult too defying.

The shock too numbing.

The unfairness too staggering.

I therefore sat to read this week’s Torah portion. Beshallach—God sent—the climax of the story of our ancestors leaving Egypt. Egypt—Mitzrayim—the place the rabbis called a narrow land—a tight place—a place you feel squeezed—I couldn’t get very far in my reading. Everything seemed a bit hazy and I found myself reading and rereading the same words again and again.

17 When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the direct road –instead. ..” 18  God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea…..  19 Now, Moses took the bones of Joseph with him from Egypt ….20  they camped …on the edge of the desert. 21 By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud…..and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light…by day or night….

Exodus 14

1 Then God said to Moses, 2 “Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp …between Migdol and the sea… 3 Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed by the desert…

Today we are all wandering around the land in confusion—hemmed in by what feels to be a desert—a wasteland, wilderness lies before us. How will we cross this? How will we leave this narrow place?

The psalmist offers us straight paths—

This Torah portion offers a crooked roundabout way.

This portion is a Torah of everything and its opposite

Pharoah and God

Israel and Egypt

Freedom and War

Straight path and Philistines

Day and Night

Pillar of Cloud and a Pillar of Fire

The vision of a new future and the bones of Joseph

Desert and Sea

Wilderness and Water

Like the wandering Israelites we too are tossed in a wilderness of everything and its opposite.

This is who we are right now—we feel ourselves to be bent out of shape.

Should we be bitter?

How can we not be?

But then we think–Was Kirby ever bitter?

Should we be angry?

How can we not be?

But then we think–Was Kirby an angry person?

This moment is as if a moment –frozen in time. It is as if there is nowhere to really turn—we are feeling hemmed in just as the Bible tells us.

We all have Kirby stories we are thinking about right now in these moments as we struggle and tearfully say goodbye.

The memories are glorious—Capitol Hill, Capitol Hill Day School, School Without Walls, Temple Micah, Ghana, AFS, Smith, engineering, a budding life in New York, beading, travel with family, friends everywhere—friends everywhere.

Just go to the beautiful litany of testimony and encouragement on Kirby Strong—

If you want to be inspired by the potential of human love—linger over the site:

Statement 1

It comes as no surprise that Kirby — such a committed, thoughtful, kind, and caring student, who I continue to think about and invoke to other students years after her graduation — would come from and be surrounded by such committed and caring folks.


Statement 2

So many people love you and are sending you and your family love and strength. You defined strong for me when we were little kids on the playground, and you always will.

Love from A St. NE,

Devin Burke

One more—

When I think of you the first thing that comes to mind is your laugh and that wonderful personality of yours – you’re such a sweetheart. I love the way you can get your point across in such a polite way and anything and everything you set your mind to – you can accomplish.- Josephine

Kirby was a tower of beauty and a kind of purity and humor. Kirby was strong and willful and wonderful. Kirby exuded life.

Yesterday Judith said to me in many different ways that Kirby was born with an old soul—she was a nurturer—you can read that everywhere on the KirbyStrong web site—“because of you I stayed in school, I only had one class with you but I remember you to this day, you were the one who helped me in the engineering lab when I was a first year. You were the one with the smiling face. You were the one who was never in a sour mood. You were the one who…. You were the one who…

You were the one who….

You were the one who…

Kirby was so often the one for so many—

So often, for so many—

Kirby was the one.

This combination of old soul and nurturer—someone who implicitly understood people—this gift of being someone who could look at another person and see into them, see inside of them—feel their soul—was writ large in Kirby—within Kirby. Kirby’s soul could see into our own.

And she shared this everywhere—from Capitol Hill to Temple Micah from New England all the way around the globe to Ghana.

Kirby wanted to save the world—one kilowatt at a time—

Robert even told this joke to me yesterday—it could have been Kirby—

Everyone is gathered around the bed of the man who lay dying—who asks—is everyone here?

Yes-he is told—we are all here—

All of the grandchildren?

Yes-the grandchildren are here

The cousins?

Yes—all the cousins are here

And my nephews and nieces?

Yes-they are here also—

Then why do I see the light on in the hallway?

Kirby’s life was give over to so many things—her friends, her engineering, her desire to save the world—Judith said that she had tikkun olam (repairing the world) engraved into her heart—and Kirby had a large heart—a heart that matched her soul.

Yesterday at the house– we spoke about Kirby’s learning disabilities—her formidable obstacles in learning a language. We spoke of the challenges that she faced in preparation for bat mitzvah. This goes back so many years. Teddy and I used to share how Kirby really struggled with the Hebrew—but there was a total nobility in her bat mitzvah efforts. I used to say to Teddy and then come home and tell Louise that Kirby had the heart of a lion. She wanted it so much.  Her dedication was so extraordinary. This beautiful soul was in her—even as her Hebrew learning challenge prevented her from taking the straight line path—she zigged and she zagged to great success.

Kirby knew that the rich fulfilling life was found in dedicated response to challenge. This is why we feel so broken today—the pillar of fire is burning less brightly for us all. Kirby was that pillar of fire for so many.

Many years ago at a rabbinical conference, I mentioned to the leader of the track on Healing—that I found her offerings rather the opposite of healing—but rather depressing. She asked me what I found healing and I told her humor was healing. At her healing offering later that day we began with a breathing exercise. My friend invited us in that kind of low, mellow voice—meant only to annoy people like me–to breathe in-breathe out, inhale—pause—exhale–—then without missing a beat she looked right at me and said “you can choose to participate or not.” After a split second the entire room howled with laughter.

Kirby’s guest wall invited jokes—As a way of honoring Kirby’s delightful humor I am limiting myself to three:

1.      A neutrino walks into a bar, orders a gin and tonic, and asks the bartender how much it owes. The bartender says: “For you — no charge.”

2.      The Zen master steps up to the hot dog cart and says: “Make me one with everything.” The hot dog vendor fixes a hot dog and hands it to the Zen master, who pays with a $20 bill. The hot dog vendor puts the bill in the cash drawer and closes the drawer. When the Zen master asks for change, the hot dog vender says: “Change comes from within.”

3.      An American tourist is visiting the Kotel, the Western Wall, in Jerusalem, the most holy site in Judaism, and sees one old man praying fervently. His forehead is resting on the large blocks of stone and he’s beating his chest. He even has tears in his eyes.

The tourist approaches the old man, tells him how impressed he is with his piety, and asks him what he prays for.

Old Man: “Good health, peace between the Jews and the Arabs, and prosperity for everyone.”

Tourist: “And how long have you been coming to pray here?”

Old Man: “Twice every day for fifty years.”

Tourist: “And have your prayers been answered?”

Old Man: “Ach—it’s like talking to a wall!”

We are all talking to a wall today—we find nothing but questions in our prayers—we find nothing but questions—even in our laughter.

Robert and Judith used to bring Kirby to Shabbat services every Friday evening—Louise reminded me dressed in wonderful little girl’s dresses—she would lie down and sleep on the seat as the service wore on. We saw her every week—all of us at Micah watched her grow up. Robert reminded me that after one service many years ago-when Kirby was 3 or 4 as we were leaving the temple, I asked Kirby what her favorite part of the Shabbat service was. Kirby looked up at me and “the cookies afterwards”  was the wonderful response. I remember that moment—and I remember saying to her—“That is my favorite part also.”

We are all going to leave here and go to the repast in store for us at the church—St James and St Monicas on 8th Steet NE just north of Massachusetts Avenue. Please everyone—as a way to honor Kirby find a good looking cookie to munch on—and think of Kirby.

More than anything else—from the time she was very young—we could see it—Kirby was a connector. She brought people together. She made arrangements. She was a giving, caring person—who linked one to another. Just as beading was her passion—and what is beading but putting one bead on a loop next to another bead—joining together. Beading was a metaphor for who Kirby was—she joined people into clusters around her and she was a gatherer—

I would like to close this afternoon with the wisdom of Michael Walzer—beautiful words that seem to capture where we are now and what Kirby would have us do as a way of going forward.

“Standing on the parted shores of history, we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai: that where ever we are, it is eternally Egypt that there is a better place a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes thru the wilderness, that there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands marching together.”

We can only go forward from this newly darkened and narrow world together. This will take time—the path will be crooked and we will be turned back along the way–but through it we will together share our love for Kirby—

We will continue her passions for the world, and her work,

We will remember her grace, her beauty her lion’s hearted courage and her humor.

Like the psalmist—we will drink deeply from the cup of our memories of Kirby—so that the blessings of our lives are hers.

We will link ourselves as Kirby would have –binding ourselves to Kirby’s dreams—together.

Robert, Judith, Owen, Jean, Traci, Ken, Doug—

We know that your world more than any other will never be the same. Together we hold you in our dreams and our memories.

For Kirby we pray—shalom l’nafsha—May God’s sweet peace rest with your soul—



7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Nancy and Ken
    Feb 12, 2012 @ 18:31:53

    Thank you so much for sharing this. Some of us on the edge of the crowd had a hard time hearing, and it is very moving to be able to read this wonderful tribute.



  2. Becca
    Feb 12, 2012 @ 18:55:20

    Thank you so much for sharing this…his speech was beautiful. Am not ready to read it again yet, but would like to some day. (As I got the email notification, I was making lunch with a Murano glass knife that Kirby got me when she was in Italy. :-)). Missing her and thinking of you all always.


  3. Olya
    Feb 12, 2012 @ 19:05:42

    Thanks so much for posting…these remarks are wonderful. You’re in my prayers….


  4. Peg
    Feb 13, 2012 @ 16:12:14

    Thank you so much for posting this. Danny expressed the whole geshtalt. Thank you thank you. You all are in my thoughts and prayers.


  5. Aimee Vickery Annichiarico, Smith '07
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 12:44:49

    Thank you so much for posting this for those of us who couldn’t come to grieve for Kirby and show our love at the funeral. I can’t think of a more perfect or beautiful sermon for her. I think she would have been proud.


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